A growing problem has captured the attention of meeting planners: the lack of attention among attendees. Our reliance on smartphones isn’t the only culprit, although a 2018 Statistic Brain Research Institute survey suggests it’s one main reason the average adult attention span has fallen to 8.25 seconds, meaning we’re now more distracted that the average goldfish. Similar studies estimate session attendees will pay attention for about 10 minutes. The challenge for planners is to beat those statistics.
For their part, attendees are clamoring for more engaging sessions. Early 2018 research from MPI Outlook for IMEX Group found that 87 percent of meeting-goers want more activities in programs to keep them better involved in meetings.
Industry thought leaders, recognizing this need, have been experimenting with out-of-the-box ideas and refining them based on results. The best practice for the effort remains the same. It involves first communicating with clients to establish goals and then finding the right fit among a handful of engaging new formats.
“Listening is the key to determining what format works best for a meeting,” said Chris Flatt, executive vice president of hotel sales and marketing for Wynn Las Vegas and Encore. The property recently announced a two-level convention space expansion, the design of which was meant to inspire the kind of thinking that makes a modern meeting memorable. “This discovery process is an extension of the personal service approach we take to helping clients plan their event. It can be enlightening when you truly analyze what you want to achieve, helping to open doors to a new way of achieving goals.”
One key to making engagement central, experts agree, is to emphasize smaller-group participation over the more traditional format of a lengthy keynote followed by what renowned design-thinking consultant Duncan Wardle calls the Panel of Doom, which doesn’t leave any time for the kind of discussion attendees would benefit from. “How do you know it’s the Panel of Doom? Because a third of the audience is on their cell phones,” he recently told Northstar Meetings Group.
How can one best set the stage for greater collaboration? Here are a few of the top “boredom buster” ideas designed to involve and engage participants for well more than 10 minutes. Look to see more of them being used in 2020.
What if your meeting had no pre-set agenda? The unconference lets attendees dictate how to use their time. The meeting might begin with the group brainstorming the best way to proceed, with a facilitator guiding the process.
It’s not a total free-for-all though. “You can have a lack of structure or a lack of agenda, but you still need some information to take from it,” says Dianne Devitt, a meetings industry experiential consultant. It’s important to have clear objectives.
“It has to kick off with some kind of keynote, some kind of direction, almost like a starting line,” Devitt adds. “What’s the end goal? What are the action items? That way, you can compile the results for some kind of resolution. All information is good information if it’s focused on an objective.”
It’s warm and intimate, perfect for small groups (maximum about 20). Participants gather in a tight circle so all voices may be heard. The lights are low but bright enough so that people can see each other’s eyes. The only one carrying a smartphone is the facilitator, for the sole purpose of playing a “crackling fire” sound on a relaxing melodies app while briefly introducing a topic for discussion.
The Campfire is meant to hearken back to a simpler time. Instead of tall tales and ghost stories, you’re sharing on an important topic, encouraging a group conversation. Soft, moveable cubes are ideal for seating in a cozy space that lends itself to a communal experience.
The story slam emerged more than 20 years ago, when The Moth [link] turned this twist on poetry slams into a competition in clubs in New York City. Now a national phenomenon, the rules are simple: You have a topic and a maximum of five minutes to deliver a story — with no prepared notes — in front of a crowd. Pre-assigned judges select the best tale and the winner gets a prize.
Given how popular the format has become — The Moth now holds more than 200 such competitions every year — it’s a natural for meetings. In larger gatherings, hold a few smaller story slams. Those winners can later present their tale to the larger audience.
“People have to learn to find their voice in a small group and then see that voice make it to the large group,” says Lain Hensley, co-owner and head dream chaser at Odyssey Teams, Inc., a team-building and leadership-training company. “They need to see that a few times to start to really believe their individual input is valued.”
A hackathon is a facilitator-led meeting that tasks groups with resolving a vexing problem. Participants work together to come up with a solution, and an assigned spokesperson from each group presents it to the crowd — and a panel of judges. The prize for the winning group is to see their ideas put into action,
This solution-based format keeps everyone busy and collaborating. It takes teamwork, and reveals who the natural leaders are, and how individuals collaborate and perform under pressure.
The science experiments from our school days began with a hypothesis, then research, testing and ultimately a conclusion. Sometimes that conclusion brought us to the next important hypothesis. In many ways, that’s the idea —and intended outcome — of a lab meeting.
Best suited to fields like technology or medicine, this format starts with a problem to solve and the anticipated solution. The group then tests the theory to see if it works. Outcomes are discussed supportively and collaboratively, with the intent to create a new solution, idea or product.
• In a Ted Talk-type session, you’re assured of seeing a well-prepared and highly engaging speaker taking on a compelling topic — and all in under 14 minutes.
• Deep Dives are rapid-fire brainstorming sessions meant to create a new idea, develop a product or bring about a swift solution to a problem.
• Workshops are hands-on experiences designed for training and developing new skills.
All of the above have the common goal of getting attendees involved in actions and outcomes. “People don’t want perfection; they want connection,” says Hensley. “Creating some kind of experience that has an emotional connection to information can really drive change.”
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